If Iran were not a partial democracy, and if it were ruled by a ruthless dictator who governed with an iron fist, it would still be difficult to figure out how to handle Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. The fact that it’s also a society in transition, with a growing and often restless middle class, suggests that the West has to be very careful how to respond to the fear of Iranian nuclear proliferation.
The conundrum is clear: if Iran gets nuclear weapons it will become a regional power capable of upsetting already unstable balances of power in the region, and make it more difficult for Israel to counter groups like Hezbollah. If, however, military action is undertaken against Iran, it would not only be dangerous, but could threaten to undermine the economic and political stability in the West. War with Iran is unthinkable; not only is Iran much stronger than either Iraq or Afghanistan were, with much more difficult terrain, but if the past is any guide an attack will push the growing, restless opposition back in step with the leadership.
The best hope is with those middle class dissenters, student and women protesters, and others tired of a regime whose methods have hurt the economy and prevented Iran from having the status in world affairs which it could have. The fact is that Iran is the regional power, far superior in capacity, resources and population than Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and pretty much everyone from Africa to China except Pakistan. Can a mix of economic and political pressure strike that right balance of damaging the regime but not igniting an anti-American backlash? Could it even serve to push the regime to give up its alleged arms program (or, if it really doesn’t have one, open up enough to prove it.)?
So far, Obama is showing a level of competence that the past administration did not, at least not until well into President Bush’s second term. One is to get the international community together on the issue. Job one is to keep France, Germany and the UK with the US to speak with one voice. Job two is to get Russia on board. Russia has aided Iran many times, and has used their ability to thwart US efforts on Iran to pressure the US to finally abandon an unneeded but expensive missile shield plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. So job one seems to be going well, create an international consensus that won’t crack at the first sign of pressure. In this Obama is more reminiscent of the first President Bush than his son.
Job two is to craft a policy designed to do the job. So far, it appears a mix of threatened sanctions — targeted to hurt Iran — combined with a willingness for discussion. It’s a classic carrot and stick approach, with Iran being given a chance to shift policy while saving face. This is when foreign policy becomes more art than method, and when it becomes exceedingly important to engage in a personal manner with the other side.
There is no guarantee that even if Obama does everything right, it will work. But the Iranian Guardian Council — the people who do run the country — are known for Machiavellian ruthlessness, and a sense of rational self-interest. If it becomes against their interests to continue this policy, they will change. They will test Obama and the world community to be sure of their resolve. They will make bombastic statements threatening potential violence in Palestine or threats to the region, hoping to get Obama nervous and willing to back down. It seemed to work with Bush, whose talk on Iran was always about twenty times worse than his almost non-existent bite.
What Obama has to do is maintain a stable and dogged persistence on Iran, punishing them with economic sanctions that can be maintained by most of the international community in a manner that hurts the Iranian economy and weakens the hold of the hardliners on the country. He cannot start talking trash. President Bush’s problem was that he talked a lot of trash, but couldn’t follow through. Thus he pushed allies away, helped the hardliners in Iran rally the people behind them, and was unable to accomplish his goals.
To be sure, military options are all but off the table. They have to maintain a threat to possibly bomb the site in question, but I think if that’s the main focus, Iran will call that bluff successfully. The dangers of such a policy, already gamed out, are immense, with the chances of success are minimal. It could be met with an upsurge of violence in Iraq from Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah pressure against Israel, higher oil prices, and a ‘rally around the flag’ effect in Iran, as even those opposed to Ahmadinejad rally against an American threat. All that, and it may not succeed in stopping Iran’s efforts. The focus has to be economic, it must be effective, and Obama has to keep a coalition together on this. If he can somehow get China on board, that will be a masterstroke.
If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it risks creating an incentive for Saudi Arabia to get nukes, increases the danger of an Israeli attack on Iraq (which would be even worse than an American bombing), and could further embolden and protect the most vicious Shi’ite terror organizations like Hezbollah. To be sure, Iran’s Guardian Council isn’t run by lunatics. They’re not about to launch offensive wars against Israel, who has hundreds of nukes. Their goal is to expand their position as a regional power, become the most important voice in OPEC, and slowly spread their influence. Perhaps the most disastrous aspect of the Iraq war was the opening it gave Iran to expand its influence in Iraq.
So far, Obama is playing this well, though the game is in the early stages. This is one of the trickiest crises any President might face, and one that defies any military solution or magic diplomatic bullet. It requires resolve, the ability to keep a coalition together, and a clear and effective set of economic sanctions. If it works, it could set the way for greater changes in Iran in coming years, perhaps increasing the depth and scope of Iran’s currently only partial democracy. If it fails, then the number of crises the President will face in the region will grow in both quantity and level of danger.